Curing children with cancer
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Curing children with cancer

Dr. Michael Harris of Tomorrows Children's Institute looks back on a 40-year career

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Dr. Michael B. Harris notes the strides made in treating children’s cancer. “Going from a 30 percent to an 80 percent cure rate, I’d say we are getting there.” Photo by James Janoff

After more than 40 years of treating children with life-threatening illness, Tomorrows Children’s Institute director, Dr. Michael B. Harris, says his secret weapon against burnout is his patients and their parents.

“I became a pediatric hematologist-oncologist because when I started my residency at Children’s Hospital in Philadelphia [in 1970], I felt that these children and parents were the most courageous people anywhere on earth,” said Harris, who at 69 has no plan to retire as chief of pediatric hematology-oncology at the Joseph M. Sanzari Children’s Hospital at Hackensack University Medical Center.

“In those days we weren’t curing many children – just 30 or 40 percent,” he said. “On the ward, you were surrounded by critically ill and dying children, and also in hematology there was still so much to learn. I loved both specialties, and I thought it would really be something to go into this field and be able to help these children and maybe be part of the process of discovery of new cures.

“I was driven by that.”

Harris moved to Englewood in 1979, and has been a member of Congregation Ahavath Torah there since then. He began the Division of Pediatric Hematology-Oncology at Mount Sinai Medical Center in Manhattan in 1977 and was asked to move it to Hackensack in 1987 where it evolved into Tomorrows Children’s Institute.

Though today HUMC is ranked one of the nation’s top hospitals, back then Harris was skeptical about moving to a little-known community hospital. But he saw that many families from New Jersey had to cross the bridge to get the best care for their sick kids, so he agreed – on his own terms.

“I insisted we couldn’t be an island of excellence,” he said. “We had to build a pediatric department around us, we had to have the best specialists, and we had to be committed to research.

“They agreed to whatever I wanted, so I came.”

Ranked as one of the nation’s top 1 percent of physicians by U.S. News & World Report, Harris credits his interest in medicine to his biology teacher at Yeshiva University’s High School for Boys. “Dr. Frankel made me realize I could actually do something in life,” he said.

His Jewish involvements include directing the medical advisory committee of the Israeli Children’s Cancer Foundation for the past 13 years and serving as the board secretary for the Halachic Organ Donor Society, or HODS.

Organ donation is a very personal topic for Harris. In 1986, he accidentally stuck himself with a needle from a hemophiliac patient and developed hepatitis C. That eventually led to liver failure. On August 3, 2005, he received a liver from a young woman and returned to work in January. “I never thought not to go back,” he said.

He has not lightened his workload. In addition to overseeing a staff that cares for up to 500 hospital patients at any given time, in 2008 Harris became medical supervisor of Kids of Courage, a national nonprofit that provides free trips and fun events for children with cancer and their families.

He is more passionate than ever about the strides being made in his field.

“We’re curing more than 80 percent of children’s cancers today, but it still remains the largest killer of children in this country outside of accidents,” he said. “Between the ages of zero and 22, we have about 15,000 cancer diagnoses each year.”

He is inspired by the memory of many patients. There are two who are particularly dear to him. The first was a Mount Sinai patient, Kathy, who won the contest leading to the name Tomorrows Children’s Fund, which now donates support to the activities of the institute. She explained to Harris that the program ensures brighter tomorrows for children with life-threatening illness. Although Kathy did not survive, Harris later successfully treated her brother for leukemia.

“Today he is an architect with two kids,” Harris said. “I always think Kathy is looking down and saying ‘That is what I was talking about.'”

Another inspiration was Naomi Cohain, who lived in Israel. In 1994, her family got in touch with Harris. They hoped that he could arrange to treat the 14-year-old. He could. The Cohains moved to Englewood, and Naomi entered Tomorrows Children with a bone tumor that had metastasized to her lungs.

“Naomi was one of the most unusual kids I ever met – as beautiful inside as she was outside,” Harris said, recalling, verbatim, conversations with his patient 18 years after her death.

“During my first meeting with her, she said, ‘So, doctor, what are my chances?’ I must admit I colored the truth and said, ’50 percent.’ She said, ‘Okay, it’s 50-50. Let’s get started.’

“She was just amazing.”

Naomi became a favorite of the nurses and used her artistic talents to make them drawings and jewelry. The morning she died, Naomi asked her doctor to promise he’d never stop curing children.

Harris was a founding board member of ArtWorks: The Naomi Cohain Foundation, established by Naomi’s cousin Daniela Mendelsohn, who also lived in Englewood, to bring art to children with cancer and their siblings.

He does not deny that his emotionally taxing profession has taken its toll.

“There is no doubt my personality has changed over the years,” he said. “I think [my wife] Freida will tell you that although my humor hasn’t disappeared, there are times I am sad and fatigued, but she and my children are incredibly understanding and express that it’s a field I chose correctly – even though I believe the family has suffered because I’m not always available.”

He has vivid memories of Friday nights when he’d come home from the hospital after Freida already had lit the candles, their four children watching at the window for their father.

“My children turned out to be fantastic adults, and Freida deserves a lot of that credit,” Harris said. Today the Harrises have five grandchildren. Freida Harris is a librarian at the Kaplen JCC on Palisades in Tenafly, where she also works with the center’s seniors.

“My wife is the real hero of the Harris family,” her husband said.

“She’s a rock. We couldn’t take vacations for years, and on Shabbos very often I couldn’t go to shul, and Freida had to take the kids.

When asked how his career affected his faith, Harris paused a moment before answering.

“On the whole, my faith has remained steady, though at times I get frustrated and angry at God for the suffering these families go through,” he said. “Nobody should have to see their child die.”

Harris remembers a parents meeting on this topic at Tomorrows Children’s Institute years ago. The speakers were a priest, a minister, and the then-rabbi of the Jewish Center of Teaneck, medical ethicist Rabbi David Feldman.

“I raised my hand and said, ‘I’m an Orthodox Jew, but things I see in my career at times gives me agnostic feelings. How do you answer that?'” Harris recalled.

“‘Rabbi Feldman, God bless him, said, ‘Dr. Harris, when I go into the room of someone young and sick, I frankly don’t know what to say. But I do know that when God created this world, he created good and evil because there is no good without evil, and it’s up to us to try to change the evil. It’s not God causing this.’

“I think that’s a way of looking at it,” Harris said. “The world goes on, and God doesn’t intercede all the time, but gave us the tools and brains to be able to figure things out.

“And going from a 30 percent to an 80 percent cure rate, I’d say we are getting there.”

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